A "German Standard Concertina"

By John Dallas (John_Dallas@compuserve.com), November, 1999

Your article "Psst, Buddy! Wanna buy a concertina?" about the difficulty of finding reasonably-priced used concertinas these days, and with the warning about "cheap German concertinas", put me in mind of my beginnings on the instrument. And why the Anglo is really called the Anglo-German Concertina...

As a very small boy, I was always intrugued by the sound of the concertinas that Salvation Army officers used for accompanying choruses at informal meetings. Later, my loves of music and the sea came together and got me interested in shanties, and in British circles, the concertina is regarded as the seaman's instrument. (Not in other countries, I know! In Germany, it's the piano accordion, though how you got that aboard a clipper in your sea-chest goodness knows, and Americans seem to be of the opinion that it was the melodeon. There is, however, documentay evidence that British sailors of the clipper era did use concertinas.) But I digress! At 18, I was clear in my mind that I wanted a concertina for my birthday. The wish was granted, and guess what I got (in a shop in Belfast, Northern Ireland): a cheap, 20-button, German anglo! Grained plywood ends, non-adjustable wrist-straps - the works! What I didn't get was that hard, piercing, evocative timbre that I had so admired. But it was a concertina, and having had my early musical tuition on the mouth-organ, I was soon playing away merrily. The tutor I had bought informed me that there were also 30-button instruments and upwards, so I kept a lookout for a "proper" one. When I left home for Germany at the age of about 25, the old 20-button was in a sad state of mis-tuning, especially in the bass, so I left it behind. In Germany in the '70s, junk shops really were treasure troves. Especially in large cities like Berlin, where I spent several weeks on training courses. It was there I found what I thought was a small bandoneon. It was almost aquare-ended (7 3/4" by 7 1/4") and had a large thumb-lever for the generously-proportioned air-valve and a helluvalot more than 20 buttons (22 left, 29 right). However, the central buttons appeared to be rather anglo-like in arrangement, so I bought it, despite the fact that some of the peripheral buttons seemed to be wildly out of tune. The price was ridiculous - 60 Marks, which would be about $30 at present-day rates!

At home, I discovered that the three main rows were each, in fact, arranged as on an anglo concertina, and there was a G row, an A row and an E row. I was able to play familiar tunes at once, thanks to the similarity to the anglo arangement, and with time I discovered that the peripheral buttons were not out of tune - they offered accidentals and interesting alternative fingerings, allowing beautifully rich harmonies, which sounded good in the mellow but powerful timbre of the wooden-ended instrument. The familiar interplay of the two rows of the anglo was there (between the A and E rows), but the combination of G and A rows offered different and equally interesting possibilities. The instrument is very plain, just varnished mahogany veneer with fine metal strips on the edges, the bellows having dark green, patterned papers. The corners are sharp, not champhered like on a bandoneon, and the single reeds are set in zinc plates, several reeds to one plate, nailed flat on the sound-board, concertina style. The action is made of wood. There is no date or serial number, but everything points to its dating from early in the century. And it is still in perfect tune! The only reason why I have not used it with my group is that it is not at modern concert pitch. I later learned that this is typical of certain older free-reed instruments.

What I learned only recently is, that my dear old mini-bandoneon is not a bandoneon at all! It is, in fact, a so-called Deutsche Einheitskonzertina (German standard concertina) - a real concertina after all! I gleaned this information from Terry Knight's web site (www.pied-crow.com), where you can see a photo of an almost identical instrument.

I have recently invested in a 30-button anglo, and am making good progress in mastering it, thanks to the two decades of practice on its German cousin. The anglo's full name is, after all, "Anglo-German Concertina". Its shape is English, its button arrangement basically German. Now that I play both instruments, I have a use for each, because each has its faibles and fortes. The Geman instrument has a voice almost like a harmonium, with a very rich bass, and no squeaks in the treble. The tuning is dry, because it has single reeds, like all proper concertinas (no octave reeds like a bandoneon's, and no off-tuning like an accordion's). The bellows are long (11 folds) and the large air-valve allows you to gulp a bellows-full of air in a millisecond if need be, and the lever actuating it lies at right angles to you thumb,so you just cannot miss it. The disadvantage is the weight. It's almost impossible to play standing up, certainly impossible to play well. And the mass of the ends works against you on jigs and reels, with their quick changes of bellows direction. The metal-ended anglo (OK, it's a Stagi, but the top-end model, and has a nice, hard timbre!) is a lot more agile, and the pressure control on the reeds is more direct, making it more expressive (you can really do a sforzando on the anglo!) But, of course, the 30 buttons just do not give you those lush chords for all occasions. But then again, more buttons and more reeds would mean a bigger, heavier instrument, and your agility would be impaired.

So I'll hang on to my two very different instruments - Concertina and Konzertina - and remember, an old German concertina, if it is really old, and square rather than hexagonal, could be a very good buy!